I woke up to a humid morning in Buckhorn. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, after the previous day’s travails, to get on the road again. In fact, that morning, with 800 miles to go, I was feeling that the end of the race was actually in sight. I had started to get text messages from friends and family – “Almost there!” and “Only a few more days to go!”
Riding my bike through Western Kentucky opened my eyes to a sliver of the country I had never experienced before. On the one hand, this part of the US is a hidden wonderland of lush, green mountainous roads, running rivers and pockets of nature untouched by development. At the same time, it is also an area of deep poverty that seems to have been forgotten in our rush to urbanism and suburbia. Everywhere I looked there were cars up on blocks, families living in small manufactured storage sheds, men with the black faces of mine work, and mangy dogs running pell mell.
In a little grill inside Chavies Food Mart, I happened upon a delicious diner breakfast – one of my few square meals of the trip. It was staffed by a father and son duo, while the mother cooked up meals from a tiny kitchen behind the counter. I ate a hearty breakfast of eggs and pancakes, and she wrapped me a second order of pancakes to go. When I was ready to go, I went to the counter, where the father was sitting in a chair. He was too heavy to stand up to take my payment, so I waited while he called his son to come around. They smiled and wished me luck as I left.
As the day progressed, the heat and the humidity picked up. So did my anxiety. The remainder of the day was a frustrating mix of highway riding – with mining trucks and semis thundering by – and steep, winding mountain roads with cracked pavement and dogs forever darting out and chasing from behind chain linked fences. The route was a bit confusing in this area, and I found myself slightly off course a couple of times. By the late afternoon, the heat, humidity, dogs, terrain and hills were truly threatening my unruffled mental state of earlier that morning.
Actually, by that afternoon I was totally pissed off. The optimism that I had felt in the morning about being “close” to the finish had taken a strong turn towards doubt and outright anger. I was taking everything personally. The cracks in the pavement were against me. The 15% grades had most probably been constructed to break my spirit. My Garmin’s habit of switching to “auto pause” while I was climbing because I was going so slowly that it thought I was stopped was another way to rub salt in the gaping wounds of my ego. The only saving grace was that the dogs sprinting out constantly to give chase were a deserving target for my most creative expletives. I spent most of the afternoon screaming epithets at canines as loud as I could.
My friend Jill called me as I was traversing one of these particularly hilly segments. Jill is not only a good friend, but also a fierce competitor and one of my favorite cycling partners. She had been an important confidant during the previous three weeks. Jill is also a super tough person, and not one to coddle or sugar coat a hard situation. So when I told her how angry I was, I was surprised by her advice.
“Try to be a little patient and kind,” she suggested.
I think I laughed. This kind of thinking seemed so out of bounds at the time, not to mention far beyond my abilities. Patient and kind? What the hell did that even mean? How about intolerant and enraged? Now that was more like it.
After we hung up, I pondered her advice. Being at the end of my rope – and having the time to kill – I decided to give it a go. Every time I would come to a steep, cracked pavement, 15% grade kind-of-a-hill I would ask myself, “Janie, how would a patient and kind person climb this hill?” At first, I did it in a mocking tone of voice inside my head. But eventually, the exercise calmed me down.
At some point during that hot afternoon I had to stop to recharge my Garmin. After the navigation debacle past Harrodsburg the day before, I was unwilling to rely on my brain to read maps, so I stopped at a pizza place, seemingly in the middle of nowhere to see if I could use their electricity. The woman who worked there didn’t seem to have seen a customer in days, and she chatted with me for a while as I plugged my electronics in and sat on the front porch.
While I was there, Jay Petervary rode up. I had known Jay was going to catch me, but I wasn’t sure when. He had started in a pairs team but lost his partner to an injury in Newton, Kansas. An accomplished, experience ultra-endurance rider, Jay had decided to finish alone and had slowly been working his way up the field. Jay went inside to get a coke and then sat down on the porch to chat for a while. It was nice to talk with another rider, especially in the middle of a hard, hot day in the middle of seeming nowhere. That cheered me up some. Jay left about 15 minutes before my Garmin was charged, and I figured I wouldn’t encounter him again.
I pulled into Elkhorn City, Kentucky as it was getting dark. Elkhorn City is the last town – “city” seems a bit of a stretch for a population of 1,000 – before the border with Virginia. Some massive storm clouds were settling just to the west of the town, and I stopped at a Subway and figure out my plan. I checked the radar, which was calling for massive thunderstorms in the area. As I sat there, big drops started falling and lightning started to rip across the sky.
The Subway was closing in a few minutes at 9pm, so I asked another customer whether there was a church nearby where I could find some shelter. After a spirited discussion between the man and the Subway employee about which church would be welcoming to a tired cyclist, they finally decided that the Baptist church, not the Church of Christ, was a better option. The man told me he would give me a ride, which I then refused. It seemed so rude to reject his offer, so I tried to explain. But then it felt even more awkward to be standing in a Subway in rural Kentucky trying to explain the rules of self supported ultra endurance bike racing. Finally, he told me to suit myself but that at least I should let him show me the way. So I followed behind his white pick up truck in the driving rain to the Baptist Church.
The Baptist church, blessedly, had both a portico and an electrical outlet on the front porch. So I plugged in my devices and laid out my bivvy. The radar showed the rain moving through town from west to east, and then a break in the storms. It appeared that after that lull, the storms would gain strength again. I decided to wait for this squall to pass. Then hopefully I could follow behind the storm as it headed towards Virginia.
I had just set up my temporary quarters on the porch of the Baptist church and laid down when a woman appeared on the front steps. She said she lived across the street, had seen me there out her window, and offered me a bed in her house. I knew that if I got in a bed, I might not get out for a long, long time. So I politely declined and tried to explain that I planned to get moving again in just a very little bit. She seemed truly befuddled, and I couldn’t disagree with her sentiment. I really wanted to try to explain to her that I was a normal person, too, who just happened to be doing a very, very abnormal thing – but suspected I lacked credibility to make that claim in my current state. Finally, she shrugged, pointed out her house, and said that when I changed my mind the door would be open.
I slept for about 90 minutes. When I woke up, the driving rain had turned to drizzle. I got on my bike in the dark and started riding again. It was about 11pm. The rain had brought in some cooler air and I was still encountering pockets of rain, but for the most part my plan to follow the storm as it headed east seemed to be working. Little did I know at the time that this same storm system would head over the next day into West Virginia, where it would flood parts of the state and kill several people.
Despite my intentions, I rode all night. Around midnight, I entered Virginia – the final state of the race – which got a hoot and holler from me into the silent darkness. At the Breaks Interstate park shortly thereafter, I couldn’t find anywhere to sleep that didn’t require a traverse down a long hill. I figured I would ride for a while longer and camp somewhere along the way once I got tired and found a flat spot. A few miles after the park, I came across a 24-hour convenience store at an intersection and stopped to get food. Jay Petervary’s bike was sitting outside the convenience store, but he was nowhere to be found.
The ride that night was creepy – and hard. The streets were dark, and the rural roads twisted and turned, incessantly up or down, requiring full concentration of my sleep addled brain. I didn’t know it at the time, but this particular section was one of the more challenging of the Trans Am route. During the night, I climbed 8,000 feet in 80 miles.
This section of Virginia near the border with Kentucky and Tennessee is also remarkably beautiful – but of course I didn’t realize that until the sun came up around 5:30am. When it did, I was gobsmacked by the green hills and the lush scenery I was surrounded by. I was focused on reaching Damascus, Virginia before I stopped. My friend Michele from elementary and high school, who I hadn’t seen in decades, lived there. She had an exam for a class she was taking that morning and I was hoping to get there before she left.
Coming into Damascus, I still hadn’t seen Jay Petervary. Sometime in the night I had discovered that he was about 10 miles behind me, having emerged from whatever hole or dark space he had been when I spotted his bike outside the convenience store near the Breaks Interstate Park. I kept expecting him to catch me, and would have certainly welcomed a riding companion during that spooky, twisting night, but I hadn’t seen him yet. I stopped at a diner and ordered a giant breakfast. I planned to eat and then try to find a park to nap in before carrying on the big climb out of Damascus. I had missed Michele so there was no reason to stick around for longer than I needed. But I was tired.
Just as I was about to leave the diner, I heard my name. A friendly man with a beard introduced himself as Crazy Larry, the owner of Crazy Larry’s Hostel. He said he was just a couple of doors down and had a bed for me to nap in if I wanted to stop. Did I? Of course! I pedaled over to the hostel, where Larry had a number of guests milling around inside. He pointed me to his own bedroom and told me to sleep as long as I wanted. I laid down on top of the sheets and blankets. There was a Bible on the bedstand. I posted this photo and then fell asleep.